Horcum Farm, photo by Jonathan Finch

By Michael Stratigos, Caroline Ward, Jack Hatfield, and Jonathan Finch.

Read the full article here.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has affirmed the importance of protected areas like National Parks in the fight to protect biodiversity. However, such area-based measures necessarily involve designating landscapes with long histories of human occupation, extending to thousands of years in many cases, that influence what biodiversity is protected and how. This is especially the case in more densely populated regions, although, with greater appreciation of indigenous influence on landscape histories, it has become understood in regions traditionally considered wilderness.

Looking specifically at England, this paper explores how protected areas are biased not only toward certain types of physical landscapes and habitats, but also toward certain types of historic cultural landscapes. Using the unique Historic Landscape Characterisation dataset for an area of northern England, we reveal the dominance of 18th– and 19th-century land-use changes in landscapes protected by area-based conservation measures. Very little is understood about how 18th– and 19th-century land-use changes have impacted biodiversity and given the dominance of this type of historic landscape within protected areas in this part of Britain, these historic changes should form an important area for future research.

Historic landscape data also reveals the outsized influence of large estates on the English protected area network. Some are owned by the public and charities, but most are privately owned with the greater parts of management for biodiversity protection given over to these individual owners. We argue this legacy of ownership, especially from the 18th– and 19th-centuries, is revealed through historic landscape data and has very real effects on biodiversity conservation in the present. Not least among these effects is how the designation of large estates can exacerbate access inequalities to the landscapes themselves, but also to decision making around them. With the UK government committed to expanding protected areas to meet 30 by 30 targets, our results show that greater consideration of historic landscape character would help to combat some of the entrenched biases in the UK’s protected area network with positive outcomes for biodiversity conservation but also for people who live in and near these protected areas.